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The great American melting pot

Americans are panicking again about immigration and the size of their population. But they shouldn’t, says Patrick Allitt. The US remains the greatest assimilator of new peoples

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

Americans are panicking again about immigration and the size of their population. But they shouldn’t, says Patrick Allitt. The US remains the greatest assimilator of new peoples

The American census takes place every ten years, in the zero year of each decade. I filled out my form last week and anticipate being part of a final tally that will come in at around 310 million. Pundits react to this decennial ritual with a flurry of stories. You can always find a crowd who say the country is badly overpopulated, and a forlorn little bunch who are afraid it’s underpopulated. Both groups offer persuasive reasons for their views, and both predict dire consequences.

The debate has been going on for decades. In the 1960s the great fear was explosive growth of the population in response to the baby boom, rising life expectancy and new miracle drugs. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford university biology professor, published The Population Bomb in 1968, declaring that the battle for population control was over and that we had lost. Yet by the time the 1980s rolled around, suburbanites found they weren’t reduced to gnawing old bones and eating grass. The economist Julian Simon wrote a rebuttal to Ehrlich, The Ultimate Resource, in which he argued that the appearance of more people was something to celebrate, not something to regret. Don’t worry about ‘too many mouths to feed’, he wrote. After all, every mouth is attached to two hands and a brain. By and large, the addition of human ingenuity and labour power that each person brings in to the world more than outweighs his or her need for food. Simon added that the food-to-population ratio in the world had never been better, and that the great problem for American and European farmers was overproduction.

More recently, the commentator Ben Wattenberg’s Fewer (2004) added a new wrinkle to the argument, saying that the trends now suggest that the world’s population, after peaking later this century, will go into a long decline. For him it isn’t too soon to start lamenting and finding ways to compensate for the decrease of population.

Laymen like me, reading these demographic debates, feel baffled. Will the population rise or fall? Don’t know. Should we want it to rise or fall? Don’t know. Do you know anything? Yes. What matters isn’t the number of people but their condition, their ideas, and their capacity to co-operate. Once the discussion shifts onto this ground you begin to realise that raw numbers are much less important than beliefs and attitudes.


America has often been the odd man out among the wealthy nations. Its people are more religious than those of all the others, it trumpets its faith in equality more than the others yet exhibits massive inequalities of wealth, it plays a different set of sports, and it still measures itself in pounds, inches and degrees Fahrenheit. Its population trends are eccentric too. Large families are much more common in the US than in Europe, and have been growing larger in recent years. Millions of people, usually the most religious, have a principled objection to abortion. New mothers in many states speak not of ‘unwanted’ babies but of ‘unexpected’ ones.

Quite apart from internal trends, America has always had a talent for attracting people from all over the world, and by comparison with most nations its immigration policy has been generous. In the 19th century, migrants poured in from Europe and Asia, sometimes at a rate approaching a million per year. In the 20th century, especially since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the diversity of its immigrants has increased even further, bringing folks from every part of the world.

Millions in Africa, Latin America and Asia believe that the best thing that could possibly happen to them would be to win a place in the annual US immigration lottery. To be a legal immigrant, holder of the cherished ‘green card’, is to have the chance at working hard for big rewards. No one believes more strongly in the American dream of upward economic mobility than recent immigrants, who know from experience how much greater their opportunities are in the States than just about anywhere else.

But does that mean that the country is made up of dozens of groups of immigrants, all speaking different languages, culturally remote, mutually suspicious, and close to the brink of bitter ethnic hostilities? Not at all. There’s never been a country to rival the United States when it comes to dissolving old particularisms. The indoctrination technique called ‘Americanisation’, once practised openly and heavy-handedly, is very much out of favour now, but the transformation it aimed at happens just the same. Newcomers start to learn English, learn how to vote, adopt the work ethic, serve in the military, and become passionately patriotic. Their children go to American schools, learn to speak unaccented English, adapt to American popular culture, and upset their grandparents by marrying children from other immigrant groups.

The process is far from instantaneous or friction-free. Before the Civil War, old-stock Americans feared that the roughly one million Catholic immigrants who had recently arrived from the Irish famine were brutal barbarians who could never be assimilated. During the first world war, several million German immigrants still couldn’t speak English; their neighbours feared that they were enemy sympathisers. During the second world war, the western states’ Japanese immigrants, and even their American-born children, were thrown into internment camps under suspicion of treason. Today, however, the children, grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren of those once-despised minorities run banks, get appointed as federal judges, win elections to Congress, and work as teachers, journalists, professors and corporate presidents.

The lessons of history often have to be learned over and over again. Much of today’s American middle class fears that this time it is looking at a group — the Hispanics — who will never assimilate. It’s true that Miami, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles have very large Hispanic populations, many of whose members are illegal immigrants. Some of the first generation among these immigrants never have and never will learn English. But with minuscule exceptions, their children will learn English and will join the American mainstream. The combination of schools, sports, popular culture, and the lure of well-paid work all point in the same direction. Young Latinos know, just like their predecessors from other ethnic groups, that not to learn English would deprive of them of overwhelming advantages.

The United States is such an effective machine for acculturating new populations that it’s easy to take for granted. You’ve only got to cross the Canadian border to see that it didn’t have to work out that way. Canada’s population is roughly one tenth that of the USA and it’s far less ethnically diverse, but it’s also stubbornly bilingual. The French Canadians became subjects of Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, but it turns out that 247 years have not been sufficient to reconcile them to the new reality. Canada is a mild and amiable place, to be sure, untroubled by the spectre of ethnic cleansing, but it stands as a reminder that acculturation doesn’t happen automatically. Most Americans are grateful that they somehow stumbled on such an effective system. While it continues to work, the ups and downs in sheer population numbers will take care of themselves.

Patrick Allitt is Goodrich C. White Professor of History at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.


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